This was not hard to see coming. The church has changed leadership three times since 2006 -- Schuller pere turned the reins over over to Schuller fils, who was then ousted and eventually replaced by Schuller, uh, fille. None of this bodes well; the crowds like stability, and that means more than just keeping it in the family. Add to that a bad economy, and of course mainline decline -- because it is a congregation of the Reformed Church in America, albeit an anomalous one -- and, well, you've got some painfully familiar problems.
Readers may recall that we have a soft spot for the Crystal Cathedral, which is neither made of crystal nor an actual cathedral. It is an interesting building which houses an innovative ministry of a church with which we are in full communion. We may not care personally for the particular emphases of the ministry, nor for much of the art which decorates the campus, but we find the place interesting and have always wished it well.
This leaves us a bit peeved about some of the coverage. Blogger and freelance writer Sasha Brown-Worsham is having a schadenfreude-gasm over the idea that a congregation with a conspicuously large and expensive building should now have money problems:
And though they blamed it on the economy and dwindling conributions, one has to wonder, did God really need all that fancy glass and money? Was that megachurch for true spirituality or for greed and fame? ...Think of all the money it takes to run such a mega church, so much, in fact, that they managed to build a $55 million debt. How many people in the world could eat on $55 million?
Yes, yes. And the nard could have been sold for poor relief. Thank you, Judas.
We don't mean to be too dismissive, but we hear this sort of thing too often. People who don't actually go to church themselves (and some who do) often have it in their heads that, because the church puts a priority upon social services, it is therefore about nothing but social services. This was not the case in the days of Jesus, nor is it now.
Brown-Worsham goes on:
Religion is many things for many people, but as far as a relationship to God goes, why does it take so much money to have one? Why is so much show needed to worship and feel close to God? ... This kind of show makes a mockery of real religion and the people who practice it.
Ah, yes. Show. We've heard this before: "Why do we need those silk vestments? Stained glass windows? Do you know how much an organ costs?" There has always been a puritanical strain within Christianity that asks these questions, and is outraged by the answers. But it has always been a minority voice. From the beginning, most Christians have taken for granted that the worship of God -- as the most important thing their community does -- deserves a bit of show. The cathedral at Chartres didn't come cheap.*
Of course we glorify God by feeding the poor; but we also glorify God with prayer and song, and pretty buildings in which to pray and sing. And, not incidentally, in which to feed people -- many of whom, poor as they are, appreciate that much more keenly the opportunity to spend an hour or two in a pretty building, giving thanks to God, in the one place where they can sit beside the wealthy as their absolute and unquestioned equal. If Worsham-Brown thinks these things mock "real religion and the people who practice it," we suspect she has little acquaintance with either.
Still, as with the money problems in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, this reminds us that the present catastrophic decline of so many Christian churches is not exclusive to the easily-picked-upon liberal Prots. It goes much deeper than that -- we're not yet sure how much deeper, but we do not believe that the life of any American church will look in, say, 2035, much as it does today. We may yet wind up being just what the Brown-Worshams of the world want.
* We have no idea how to estimate the actual construction cost of a medieval cathedral. But St. Patrick's, in Manhattan, was built between 1859-1879 for a total cost of $1.9 million. Adjusted for inflation, that comes to over $43 million in today's dollars. St. Paul's, London, cost 700,000 pounds in the 17th century, roughly $83 million today. The Dresden Frauenkirche was rebuilt in the 1990s for something like $250 million. At a piddling $18 million, the Crystal Cathedral was a bargain.